THE German land offensive had failed.

At sea Britain and her allies were winning the U-boat war. In August 1918 no fewer than eight German U-boats had been sunk. The final one that month was U.B.109. Its commander Skipton prisoner Kurt Ramien was the next-to-last U-boat commander to be captured by the British. Officers and men were routinely interviewed by British naval intelligence in London. Ramien was very guarded and refused to give any information that might assist the Royal Navy in its battle against the submarine terror. At the same time Ramien was extremely courteous and appreciated the good treatment he was receiving.

Ramien had been a ‘successful’ U-boat commander and had sunk 57 ships or 103,000 tonnes of shipping. These vessels had been carrying vital food stuffs or wartime supplies to Britain. The people of Skipton would not have appreciated his success. Meanwhile the boat’s wireless operator had kept the ship’s crew aware of the growing number of U-boats being sunk and the progress of the Allied offensive on the Western Front. The crew were relieved that their extremely perilous careers in the German navy were now over. Submarines sailing from Belgium had been nicknamed ‘the drowning command’ by their crews.

Normally the first cruise of a new submarine was to test for any problems before full operations began, but U.B.109 with an experienced commander was thrown into the action straight away. Three ships were sunk in the Irish Sea, where depth charges had exploded extremely close to the submarine. The dangerous Straits of Dover were carefully negotiated while sailing on the surface at night.

As an experiment U.B.109 was selected to sail to new ‘hunting grounds’ south of the Bay of Biscay and make for the Azores. Forced to surface by a mechanical fault on the outward voyage, U.B.109 nose-dived to the bottom of the ocean where it lay for half an hour while a further depth charge from a British patrol boat exploded above.

One British tactic was to arm innocent-looking trawlers and entice U-boats to engage with them. Ramien attacked one suspect vessel with one of his precious torpedoes, but missed. A British destroyer towing an airship was spotted, so the attack was quickly called off.

Passing near Folkestone on the return voyage, U.B.109 was rising to periscope depth when a huge explosion shook the boat. The submarine had hit a mine, and immediately began to sink to the bottom. The lights had gone out, seawater was rushing into the boat and the air pressure was rising alarmingly. The conning tower hatch had jammed and had to be forced open. Three of the crew including the commander all tried to escape at the same time and became stuck in the confined space. Eventually Ramien freed himself and was the first to leave. Just eight of the crew survived and were picked up by a British trawler. They were all considerably shaken and suffering from deafness due to the extreme air pressure. The remaining 28 crewmen perished.

After the war Ramien returned to Germany where he successfully resumed his career in the navy. He worked for the German war ministry but left when the Nazis came to power in order to take charge of the minesweeping division.

He died with the rank of rear admiral just one week after Germany had invaded Poland at the start of the Second World War.

On 4 October 1918 Karl Doenitz became the very last U-boat commander to be captured when his U-boat ran into difficulties attacking a convoy in the Mediterranean and was compelled to surface. Doenitz was initially sent to Southampton, before being sent elsewhere. He was later admitted to Brocton War Hospital in Staffordshire suffering from malaria. Karl Doenitz was nominated as Adolf Hitler’s successor following the German leader’s suicide on 30 April 1945. For a short period Doenitz acted as president of the Third Reich and commander-in-chief of its armed forces. He was captured the following month and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment at Nuremberg.

There is an alternative history. An article published on 2 May 1945 in the Daily Telegraph maintained that Doenitz had feigned madness in order to be admitted to a ‘lunatic asylum’ or mental hospital in Manchester and so secure an early release. Doenitz had apparently been sent to a camp in Sheffield and had later used his time in isolation to plan new U-boat tactics. These included the deadly wolf packs used to attack convoys in the Second World War. Unsurprisingly Doenitz did not mention this in his autobiography. It is likely that the newspaper story was an attempt to further discredit a regime that was already so despicable that any attempt to further besmirch it was futile.

The malaria story, using documents produced at the time and before Doenitz became famous, is far more credible. But it is part of the historian’s job to discover the likely truth, and one of the reasons why the Raikeswood saga is so fascinating with German, British and even Swiss sources all producing their own accounts of events.